MINNEAPOLIS – They took Jimmy Butler’s football away from him before he sat down for interviews Friday, but they didn’t take his swagger. In his first official day as an in-uniform member of the Minnesota Timberwolves – the Wolves’ Media Day, on the eve of their slightly early, pre-Global Games training camp – Butler moved from photo shoot to press conference to promo spots like the veteran three-time All-Star he is.
Confident, chatty, publicly humble when the microphones were hot, Butler carried himself exactly like the player Minnesota craved when they acquired him on draft night.
Driven at both ends of the court.
Proud to guard the other guys’ most potent threat. And as eager to take control of the final minutes of any NBA game in which he plays as he is to seize ownership of any locker room into which he walks.
And yet, when asked a playful question about the player or team he’ll be most curious to watch in the new 2017-18 season, Butler’s eyes narrowed.
“The Chicago Bulls,” he said. “I just want to see what they do.”
Butler, 28, has been through far worse in his young life – being disowned and kicked out of the house by his mother Londa when he was 13 down in Tomball, Texas, always is going to rank No. 1 on that list. He doesn’t sound bitter or resentful about being traded by the team with whom he worked himself into a star, the team he tried so desperately and clumsily to lead.
But he wouldn’t be human, either, if it didn’t sting just a little to be told to leave, where to go and when to get there. Fans in Chicago loved Butler. Butler loved them back. He and the Bulls had their times, too. Until they didn’t.
A year ago, at this time, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo – two NBA stars with championship rings – were going out of their way to defer to Butler as the big dog among the Bulls’ “Three Alphas.” “This is Jimmy’s team,” Wade and Rondo said at the start of a 2016-17 season that went only sideways.
Then team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his son, president/COO Michael, reminded everyone that no, the Bulls were their team. Rondo is in New Orleans, Wade is trying to extricate himself via a buyout of his $23.8 million salary and Butler is now with a team that hasn’t sniffed the postseason in 13 years.
Chicago was more interested in the assets a Butler deal could deliver – Minnesota happily sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and a swap of first-round picks to the Bulls to land Butler – than in banishing him, though dodging a maximum contract in two years was part of the equation too. Some folks, however, did see Butler’s head swell a bit in his new-found Hollywood lifestyle and friends, and a couple of intramural verbal back-and-forths he instigated through the media with coach Fred Hoiberg.
So, while Butler’s move to Minnesota is considered a boon for the Wolves, it might be a needed fresh start for him as well. He’s no longer around teammates or bosses who see him as the No. 30 pick in the first round of the 2011 Draft who, yeah, OK, worked and willed himself into something better.
He’s appreciated now for the legit all-NBA player he is and for what he’ll bring to the Wolves going forward.
“Yeah. Definitely,” Butler said when asked if he needed this career reset. “I spent six fabulous years in Chicago, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got so much love for the city, for the fans, for that organization, as I’ve said time and time again. But yeah, it is time for something new.
I spent six fabulous years in Chicago, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got so much love for the city, for the fans, for that organization, as I’ve said time and time again. But yeah, it is time for something new.
Jimmy Butler reflecting on his past and future
“I’m excited to be here, to be sitting here talking with you in this beautiful uniform. I just think the group of guys that we have, the talent that we have, the young core that we have will really be fun to watch.”
Butler could scarcely fit the Timberwolves better. The Wolves had a Top 10 offense last season but ranked 26th defensively. They habitually lost games down the stretch. And as built around Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and LaVine, they had bushels of talent but way too little experience. Minnesota needed a leader. In Chicago, Butler was eager to lead but lacked followers. Voila!
And just like that, coach Tom Thibodeau was reunited with one of his proudest projects. Together, they’re determined to get Minnesota to the postseason, the rigorous Western Conference be damned.
“It was critical for us,” Thibodeau said Friday. “Jimmy wasn’t the only guy we were looking at, but when he became available, we knew [he] was the one we wanted.”
Thibodeau used Butler for his defense from the start back in 2011-12, but it took long gym hours for the Marquette alum to develop his offense and polish away the rough edges. His scoring average rose from 2.6 ppg to 8.6, 13.1 and 20.0 in their four seasons together. With Thibodeau cut loose by the Bulls in 2015, Butler keep climbing, to 20.9 ppg and then 23.9 last season.
“The important thing for Jimmy is to continue to chase excellence,” Thibodeau said. “I also think part of the responsibility of being the star player and the primary scorer on a team is to be unselfish and to set the tone. So, I expect him to practice hard every day, to make the right plays. He has the responsibility for not only bringing the best out of himself, as do Karl and Andrew, but to bring the best out of everyone else.”
Thibodeau was being respectful to Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 Draft who is on the brink of signing a five-year, $148 million max extension. The deal is one Wiggins presumably will “play into,” based on his own ascending scoring average (from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 ppg last season) and his athletic gifts. But Wiggins’ defensive profile has been dismal and his motor often seems stuck in idle.
Then there’s Butler’s anticipated role as a buffer and filter between the Wolves coaches and players. Not only does the 6-foot-7 wing know Thibodeau’s strategies and preferences, he knows the gruff coach’s personality. A translator can be handy to have around.
“Guys have to understand, you’re going to hear Thibs’ voice. All the time,” Butler said. “But I may be able to put into context a different way what he’s trying to get across. ‘Yeah, he’s yelling at you right now, but it’s because he really, really, really wants you to do this this way.’ I can come in now and say, ‘Hey, this is what he’s saying. It’s just like at 1000 percent right now, but this is what he means.’ I think that’s how I can get the same point across that he’s trying to get across to the guys.”
So, a little of the ol’ good cop-bad cop game, one delivering the message hard, the other softening it up?
“Sometimes it might be bad cop-bad cop,” Butler said. “I don’t really know or figured it out yet. When the time comes, we’ll see what kind of cop I am.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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